World Snooker Championship: The Final Four

You all know, by now, that I’m a bit of a snooker fiend. In fact, Jo and I made the pilgrimage (and it is exactly that) to the home of snooker, Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre for the middle weekend of the World Snooker Championship in both 2012 and 2013. I decided, with regret, that we weren’t going to go this year, seeing as our Iceland trip would be making a rather large dent in our collective bank balances. Hey, it was a tough call, but someone had to make it.

It did feel weird watching proceedings on television last weekend though, weirder still to see some faces we recognised from last year’s journey. Sadly, the man dressed all in nylon fabrics I spent a Saturday next to last year, has eluded my notice so far…

Anyway, the semi finals are now well underway, with the second session of the Neil Roberton Mark Selby clash about to begin as I write. This match has the potential to be a real Crucible classic- although it also feels like a match which, if the first session is anything to go by, could still be going on on Monday night. Why shouldn’t it? Well, I’m exaggerating for effect (obviously) but Robertson is ranked #1 in the world, Selby #3 and the two have already shared some amazing finals. Although, having seen Robertson wipe out a seemingly unassailable lead to pip the Jester From Leicester in last year’s UK Final, Selby will surely not look back on that one with any fondness whatsoever. Robertson, for his part, has just completed a historic century of centuries. In the process of doing that, he completed yet another amazing comeback, trumping Judd to win 13-11 having been 11-8 down.

Robertson maybe the best potter of balls on the planet, but there should be no argument about his coolness under pressure either. Well, you don’t get to be world champion, or world #1 without being able to stand the heat. At just 5-3 down, this semi-final which could just as easily be the final, is very much a live concern for the Aussie.

I was going to begin this paragraph with the words, “On the other table”, but- clearly- there is no “other” table now. We’re just down to the one table, business end, set up. So, beginning again, in the other semi-final, Ronnie O’Sullivan is now 11-5 up on the Kent cueman Barry Hawkins after two sessions. Having talked about Selby and Robertson as a match fit for the final itself, I guess it’s worth saying that this match up was actually the final last year. Of course, “The Rocket” won that to seal his fifth world title and the first back to back championships of his career.

This is a sport at least as famous for improbable comebacks as it is for the decade defining dominance of Davis and Hendry in the 80’s and 90’s. However, it is all but certain now that Ronnie will take his place in the final- possibly by the end of this evening’s session and give himself a chance of a hat-trick of titles- the first hat trick since Hendry completed a run of five in a row in 1996.

It’s probably not worth, just yet, contemplating what another title would mean to the Rocket. Even if he renders the semi-final the formality it now appears to be, either of Selby or Robertson represents a significant barrier in the final. Robertson will want to underline his status world as world #1 by beating the greatest player to lift a cue, whilst Selby will be out for a revenge having been subjected to something of a battering in January’s Masters Final. That said, nobody who has seen Ronnie in action at Sheffield over the last two years would bet against him clearing these barriers as if it’s the easiest thing in the world.

Well, I wouldn’t.

Personally, I’m just hoping against hope that Ronnie doesn’t suffer a meltdown tonight. Barry Hawkins may not be everyone’s cup of tea, he certainly isn’t mine, but he has already proved over the last couple of years that he is no pushover. The way he came through his quarter final having seen a 11-5 lead become a 12-11 deficit in a first to 13 match is testament to that. He just never looks like he’s enjoying himself and it makes him very hard to watch. Still, I don’t suppose we’ll be suffering for much longer. After coming within two frames of losing to Joe Perry in the second round, Ronnie has gone on to win 28 frames of snooker, losing 8. To even get close to Ronnie it would have to be a herculean effort from “The Hawk”. And it has to happen tonight.

The semi finals will conclude on Saturday night, presumably with Neil Robertson and Mark Selby battering each other into the small hours. And then the fun really starts. Four sessions in what the BBC once called “snooker’s torture chamber” to decide the World Championship. Get the beers in, turn off your phone and, whatever you do, don’t answer the door. It’s going to be a classic weekend.

The only questions on my mind; why do Arsenal have to be playing on Sunday afternoon and, more importantly, why the hell did I book a curry with my mates in for Sunday night?

Idiot….

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The Blue Lagoon

On Saturday morning, we watched the tiniest bit of Ronnie O’Sullivan’s opening match in defence of the World Championship won last year. And then it was time to check out of the Centerhotel and head to the Blue Lagoon. Jo and I have done a few hotels together now, but I have to say that the friendliness of every member of staff we came across in that hotel was a real treat. I wouldn’t want to stay anywhere else in Reykjavik.

Our transfer, arranged by the Centerhotel’s reception staff (who were struggling with a lack of heating and a front door which refused to stay shut), arrived to take us to the bus station. And, after a short wait, we boarded our bus to the Blue Lagoon. Or, more accurately, the Blue Lagoon Clinic. Forty five minutes or so later, we were greeted by a receptionist who may even have outdone the Centerhotel staff with her welcome. We had actually arrived early for our check in, but our room was ready anyway.

The Blue Lagoon- photo by Jo

The Blue Lagoon- photo by Jo

I was delighted to see that, although Ronnie’s work was done for the morning, there was still snooker to watch, so we chilled out for a bit before deciding to head over to the famous Blue Lagoon. If you are staying at the clinic, entry to the Lagoon is free so we just handed over our voucher and received in return towels, dressing gowns and all important bracelets for the lockers. “There is a catch,” we were told, “if you lose this, you pay.”

Guess what?

Yep. We showered and made our way into the Lagoon- rather brilliantly, you enter it indoors and by the time you make it out into the cold- the warm water has heated you to the point that the cold is irrelevant. What was relevant, was that after about 15 minutes in the Lagoon, I realised that my locker bracelet was no longer on my wrist. In a rather cursory fashion, I retraced my steps in search of the thing, but it was gone, baby, gone. Oh well. I wasn’t going to let that spoil what was one of the best experiences of my life. Honestly, the feeling of being outdoors in just a pair of swimming trunks but being superheated was just… ahhhhhhhhh. I feel warm just thinking about it now.

Didn’t quite get why some people were wondering around with plastic cups of beer, or a camera, or a video camera balanced precariously in hand. Rather than film the experience, why not just… experience it? Ah well, each to their own, I guess. We stayed in there for about two hours, making our way around, being surprised by a hot spring here, a hot spring there. It was wonderful.

Photo by Jo

Photo by Jo

The staff at the Lagoon seemed very apologetic about taking my money for the lost bracelet, but take it they did- 5,000Kr. I could only blame myself for being so daft- and go to the nearest cashpoint. We headed back to our room, had proper showers and then headed back over to the Blue Lagoon’s Lava restaurant. If I tell you that the waiting staff here were of the friendly, but professional standard we had already experienced in Reykjavik, does that sound boring? It wasn’t.

I got a lesson in Icelandic pronunciation from our waitress when I ordered a pint of Gull- it’s pronounced.. actually, I can’t remember how it’s pronounced- gudkl, I think… I ordered the Seafood Festival- langoustine soup, Catch of the Day (a sumptuous catfish as it turned out) and banana mousse and chocolate cake for dessert. Jo went for butterut squash soup, cod and roasted langoustines, finishing with Icelandic skyr and licorice. If you’ve read anything I’ve already written about Iceland, you won’t be surprised to hear that the food was stunning. And filling. Iceland may be one of those rare places where it’s impossible to eat badly- I’d say Spain would be another (although the memory of our first meal in Valencia a couple of years ago still brings me out in a rash). At 23,000Kr, I think- with a little distance- that it wasn’t quite up to the standard set by the Grillmarket, but that is in no way a criticism.

Under normal circumstances, this story would end here, but as we were guests of the Blue Lagoon Clinic, we had access to the Clinic’s private lagoon. So, post dinner, we took advantage of that. Taking another set of robes and towels, we headed out to the lagoon. I made Jo go outside, she got her revenge by descending into the lagoon with all the urgency of a sloth. On weed. The moon came up, the moon went down and I just stood there shivering. Eventually, I followed her in and we spent about 40 minutes bathing in water that was a few degrees warmer than the public lagoon, it was laaaarvely. Or lavaly, if you will.

Eventually, Jo noticed a big black cloud heading our way and we, reluctantly, decided it was time to get out. And in doing so, we missed the hailstones that were battering the lagoon just two minutes later. It was time for one last shower (I think I’m right in saying it was the sixth of the day, you have to shower before entering the lagoons) and bed.

A light breakfast at 5.30 in the morning and, as arranged, our taxi driver arrived at 6am to take to us to Keflavik. Everything runs on time in Iceland- which, coming from London- is refreshing. 10,000Kr later (the taxi ride was 9,600 but I thought I might as well let him keep the change) we were out of the taxi and in an ever so slightly chaotic check-in queue.

Home time and time to reflect on some of the awesome things we had seen and done over the previous five days and nights; I have to say that everywhere we went we met people who were so welcoming, it was a pleasure to be in a country like Iceland. For me, the warmth we experienced was greater than in any city we have been to, except, perhaps, NYC. Yes, it was a little expensive at times, but I think you get what you pay for in life and I can’t think of many better days than the one we spent in Logi’s Land Rover. When you factor in the Northern Lights, the Blue Lagoon and the brilliant food… well, you don’t need me to spell it out for you, do you?

If you’re thinking about doing it, then do it- you won’t regret it but you will have memories to last you a lifetime.

Sermon over.

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Reykjavik Part Two: Lebowski Bar, Hallgrimkirkja & Grillmarket

When Jo and I arrived back at the hotel on her birthday, we had no idea that Reykjavik had suffered from the same the kind of weather that we had experienced towards the end of our day in the Superjeep. But they had. And, as a result, the Grillmarket had suffered a power cut. At least, I assume that’s why the power cut had happened. Perhaps it was just one of those things. Whatever, our 8pm dinner reservation was out of the window. So, we turned our disappointed, and slightly damp, bodies away from what had promised to be a wonderful meal and back towards Lebowski Bar. Cheeseburgers and White Russians weren’t quite what Jo had had in mind for her birthday, but we knew that the cheeseburgers would be tasty and the White Russians would be… well, they’d be White Russians, wouldn’t they?

We pulled up a couple of seats at the bar and got chatting to one of the bar staff there, explaining what had happened at the Grillmarket. He sympathised with us and then promptly set about impressing us with lines from the Coen brothers film that gave the bar its name. As we sat there, y’know… abiding, it felt like a good thing. It was a good thing. A White Russian later, our cheeseburgers- just as good as the first time around- appeared and we were roped into participating in the movie TV show quiz that takes place every Thursday.

Well, it’s normally a movie quiz, but on this occasion, it was TV time. We didn’t do brilliantly, or at least not well enough to make the top three. But we left the bar a few hours later having been chatting to a couple of Arsenal fans, one of whom lived in New Jersey and is also a season ticket holder at Red Bulls Arena. Not the evening we’d planned, but nonetheless a lovely way to end what had been a brilliant day.

Friday was our last full day in Reykjavik, so we thought it was time to head to the top of Hallgrimkirkja, and get a different perspective on the city. Although I wasn’t so keen to spend 700 Kr on going to the top of a tower, it was actually alright. I mean to say, I guess, that I was actually alright- the views were pretty, preeeeetty, pretty good. Despite a fierce wind blowing through the open windows, I didn’t go weak at the knees or anything. I guess if I can stand 250m above ground at New York City’s Top of the Rock, then a mere 73m is just child’s play. That said, it was bloody freezing up there so we didn’t stay long.

View From The Top- Photo by Jo

View From The Top- Photo by Jo

As we left, snow arrived with a vengeance. So we took refuge, and some lunch in a streetside café. For some reason, despite being fully aware that Jo had managed to book the Grillmarket again for that evening and I was planning on having a steak, I decided to have a steak sandwich for lunch. It was very tasty, but my enjoyment of it was slightly dulled by the knowledge that I would be eating another one later in the day.

And so, to the Grillmarket. We arrived on time for our 9pm reservation and were delighted to take our seats to the strains of Curtis Mayfield’s Move On Up. Which was followed by Adamski and Killer (whatever happened to Adamski?)*. Cocktails were ordered and provided and we ordered our food. Service was friendly, instructive and- key thing for me- attentive without being intrusive. Jo wisely skipped a starter and proceeded directly to the Meat Gourmet- containing beef, lamb and duck. I shouldn’t have had a starter, but couldn’t resist trying Grilled  Chicken Wings, with a homemade peanut butter and “popcorn”, literally deep fried sweetcorn. And you know what? I’m glad I did. You don’t get to try stuff like this every day.

I should say, in the interest of full disclosure, that by the time I finished my starter, I was already worried about how I was going to get the steak down me. A worry that was amplified when the steak arrived (with more cocktails)- they do proper portions over there, none of this 8oz crap. The steak had been grilled beautifully, they called it “medium”, but for me it was medium rare and all the better for it. Pink/ red flesh, melt in the mouth- a knock out blow. I was not going to waste it. In the end, I left a couple of curly fries and the asian style veg that had arrived went pretty much untouched. I felt bad about that, but not bad enough to risk missing a morsel of my most salubrious Rib Eye.

Probably should have left it there, but how can you have a meal like that and not have a dessert? All I could manage by then was the “Homemade Ice Cream Bliss”. Never had passion fruit ice cream before, I hope I will get the chance again, it was a real “oooooh!” moment. Just one of the four flavours on the plate, another was blackberry sorbet. Best ice cream ever- sorry Rome, it just was. Jo had the Grillmarket Chocolate- I didn’t try any of this, but it looked spectacular.

Jo excused herself and I asked for the bill. It came in at 26,000 Kr. This is equivalent to £140, but with service included. I have to say that I think, for the food we ate and the service we received, it wasn’t that that expensive. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t be eating there every week, but as a birthday treat, it was proper value for money. The only kicker was that if I’d told the waiting staff it was Jo’s birthday, she’d have got her dessert for free. I didn’t really care, we’d have a beautiful meal in a lovely setting and that was all that mattered. It was a wonderful note to end our time in Reykjavik on.

The Blue Lagoon beckoned…

 

*There was also some Depeche Mode and The Clash.

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The Golden Circle with Superjeep

Jo and I were up early on the morning of the 17th April. We had to be, we were going on a Superjeep tour of Iceland’s famous Golden Circle. So, a hasty (by our usual holiday standards) breakfast was eaten and, in no time at all,  our guide for the day, Logi, arrived to pick us up. Climbing into a rather massive Land Rover- more Defender than Range, we greeted the family with whom we would be spending the day. Graham, Christine and their twins, Ewan and Kirsty.

Logi explained that he would be driving us about 2 hour into the middle of Iceland- oh, like Birmingham I quipped. No, Paul, this wasn’t going to be like Birmingham at all. Not by a long shot. That became apparent as we headed east, with almost no traffic on the roads, surrounded by an apparently barren landscape- except for the mountains. As we drove past the largest trailer park in Iceland, Logi joked that he called its residents “the hillbillies”. He also told us that we were going to see the largest lake in Iceland, Þingvallavatn, its water so clear that you can apparently see right down to the bottom of its 100m depth.  When we arrived at Þingvellir National Park, home of the founding of the Icelandic parliament, Logi dropped us off on one side of a valley and told us he’d meet us round the other side. And so we crossed from the North American tectonic plate back to the Eurasian one. Two continents in the space of minutes, crazy huh?

Thingvallavatn- Photo by Jo

Thingvallavatn- Photo by Jo

 

It was time to head to Geysir. If I tell you that the English word “geyser” derives from the name Geysir, you can probably work out what was going on there (cos you needed me to do that, didn’t you?). Geysir itself is pretty quiet these days, but Strokkur, the geyser next to, er, Geysir is pretty spectacular. We missed its first eruption, but not the second one a few minutes later. Jo even managed to get a series of photos of it in action. We wandered across the Laugarfijall hill, surrounded by steam and the faint smell of egg. Ok, it wasn’t that faint, but don’t let it put you off.

Strokkur- photo by Jo

Strokkur- photo by Jo

Reunited with Logi, happily munching a burger in the café there, we grabbed ourselves some food. We were about to get the full benefit of doing the Golden Circle in a Land Rover rather than being sat on a bus all day; we were going off road. And then, we were going up the Langjökull glacier. Yeah, you try doing that in your average Greyhound. Tyres deflated, we made our way off the road, off the track and onto the snow. Deep snow. Snow so deep that Logi’s mate in the Nissan jeep in front of us couldn’t cut through it. So we overtook him and found that, even in our superior jeep. it was quite tough going. I can’t have been the only passenger wondering if we were going to get stuck. Everywhere we looked it, it was white.

Superjeep on a glacier- photo by Jo

Superjeep on a glacier- photo by Jo

Eventually we got, approximately, to where Logi wanted to go and we got out. Instantly, we sunk into snow that came halfway up our shins. Ewan promptly decided to recreate the Jean Claude Van Damme Coors advert and lay back in the snow. It was so blindingly white up there that it was actually difficult to see without sunglasses on. The kids spent about ten minutes running around before Logi decided enough was enough and we climbed back in the warmth of the jeep and made our way back to the road. And then we went off road again; Logi driving us back and forth across a stream. My stomach could have done without that, but it was pretty cool.

Having sat up front all day, Christine had been able to observe Logi at close quarters. This led to the exchange of the day, which went something like this-

Christine: You must be quite a confident driver, to do this?

Logi: (matter of fact) To tell you the truth, I am quite a good driver.

I thought we should be the judges of that really, but I certainly wouldn’t have disagreed with his self assessment. Next stop on our tour; the mighty waterfall, Gullfoss. The volume of water coming down this is between 140-190m³/s. As you can imagine, it is something of an assault on the senses. It looks amazing and the noise it creates is something else. Staring up, and then down, at such an awesome demonstration of nature’s power, it was hard not to feel a little bit insignificant.

Gullfoss- photo by Jo

Gullfoss- photo by Jo

Shaking off existential concerns, we had one last hot chocolate- it was nearly time to go home. On the way, we were to take in another waterfall, Faxi, which was a bit of a comedown after the majesty of Gullfoss, and the volcanic crater, Kerið. Apparently, Björk played a gig down there once. I won’t use the exact words Logi used to tell us how long ago it was, but it was a long time ago. On one hand, it was hard to imagine, with the snow swirling and the wind biting into us, that a concert could take place in such an inhospitable location. But the beauty of it shone through and I’m sure the acoustics would have been good.

Kerid- photo by Jo

Kerid- photo by Jo

We climbed back into the Land Rover one last time- we were now headed back to Reykjavik and Jo’s birthday meal at the Grillmarket. Except that there was, for the first time all day, now traffic on the roads. All day long, we had been gazing out at the landscape from an open road, but not now. Logi’s frustration behind the wheel was the closest I saw him come to getting irritated all day, but it didn’t last long. Nor did the traffic. And we were soon speeding along the motorway in a near total silence. All of us, I think, replaying the sights and sounds (and smells) we had experienced on a once in a lifetime day in Iceland.

When we arrived back at our hotel, it was with a pang of sadness that we said goodbye to Logi, Graham, Christine and the twins. I guess there’s something quite bonding about experiencing everything that we did together and I kind of found myself wishing we’d exchanged contact details with these people. Still, what a day to spend together, it genuinely was one of the best days of my life. We were now going to cap it with a wonderful meal in the Grillmarket.

Or were we?

http://www.superjeep.is

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Reykjavik Part One

A brief exchange with Logi, the driver and guide on our Superjeep tour of Iceland’s Golden Circle summed up the depth of my knowledge of this European outpost. Actually, I say “my”, I mean “our”. Between me, Jo and the lovely family from Kentish Town- Christine, Graham and their young twins Ewan and Kirsty- when pressed, we could only name two famous natives. And one of them was former Chelsea player Eidur Gudjonsson.

The other was, of course, Bjork.

For us, Iceland was the very definition of uncharted territory. We were there last week as Jo wanted to see the Northern Lights for her 30th birthday. And drink White Russians in the Lebowski Bar. Well, actually, where she would be drinking them wasn’t as important as actually drinking them. As long as she was in Iceland.

And so it came to pass that, on Tuesday afternoon, we landed at Keflavik airport, boarded a bus to Reykjavik and checked into the Centerhotel Þingholt. We then promptly changed clothes and headed over to the Lebowski Bar. You see, I had done my research. Not only was the Dude worshipping bar a rather obvious shout for a Caucasian or two, but they were also showing the Arsenal v West Ham game.  West Ham scored first, but in doing so, sparked us into life. Inspired by Santi Cazorla, a wonderful goal by Olivier Giroud and the predatory instincts of Lukas Podolski, Arsenal went on to win the game fairly comfortably. We were a few drinks down the line by then and had also eaten one of the tastiest cheeseburgers I’ve ever eaten in my life.

Thirst quenched, hunger sated and Arsenal with three points in the bag, we returned to the hotel and, more or less, promptly crashed out.

On Wednesday, knowing that the big Superjeep excursion was only one day away, we kept a low profile. Having established that we had missed the Northern Lights tour season (it had actually ended on Tuesday), we decided to mooch around town. We headed up to Hallgrimkirkja, one of the most striking churches I’ve seen in my life, with its statue of Leif Erikson out front. Who was Leif Erikson? Well, Leif was apparently the first European to land in North America- some five hundred years before Christopher Columbus, fact fans. We debated a trip to the top of the church tower, but decided against it before heading down towards Harpa, quite an impressive looking Concert Hall. The interior of which reminded me of London’s very own Royal Festival Hall.

Leif Erikson

Leif Erikson

Photo by Jo.

Reasoning with Jo that we were unlikely to see the Northern Lights on our trip (we had already established that the seasonal tours were finished- in fact they had finished the previous night), we headed off to Aurora Reykjavik to learn a bit more about the Northern Lights. Having got there, we decided not to go in. And then we changed our minds. It was interesting to learn some of the science behind the phenomena but, in all honesty, I think we felt a bit underwhelmed.

We headed back to the hotel via City Hall and “The Pond”. There we were treated to an outtake from Hitchcock’s The Birds as what seemed like the entire avian population of the city descended on one piece of bread. I jest, but for a minute there, it was a little scary.

the birds

Photo by Jo.

We dined in the hotel that night and I ate a lamb carpaccio starter that was simply stunning in its flavour. I was still talking about it when our mains arrived- the main was a little disappointing set against the staggering starter, but only a little. Back up to our room and a choice between Shaun of the Dead & Casino (yes, folks, they have all our tv channels over there) before Jo dragged me away from Robert De Niro’s troubles with Joe Pesci & Sharon Stone, out of the warmth of our room and onto the streets of Reykjavik in the hope of seeing the Northern Lights on her birthday. It was still the 16th April in Iceland, but back home, it had just passed midnight.

As soon as we walked out of the hotel under a clear sky, I just sensed it might be our night. The light in the sky seemed weird and as we headed back towards the harbour, we saw a glimmer of green light in the sky. It wasn’t a laser pen making that shape. By the time we returned to Harpa, the glimmer had become a line in the sky and then, as we watched, the green line expanded and seemed to reach out towards us. It is difficult, even a week later, to explain to you just what this felt like. I’m not religious (sorry, Grandparents!), but I felt as though I was in the presence of God. Or something.

Happy Birthday Jo!

Happy Birthday Jo!

 

Photo by Jo.

This may look blurry to you, but it was thrilling and, as I watched, a wave of emotion swept over me. It was genuinely awe inspiring and, as I think back over the trips Jo and I have taken together over the years, it’s difficult to think of anything that has moved me as much as this did. It’s difficult to think of anything that comes close.

As I keep telling people, Reykjavik would be worth doing just to witness this, but obviously it’s not guaranteed. Even so, there is plenty more to get your teeth into. That, though, is a story for another time…

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PJ Harvey Later

In fairness, this blog post isn’t much of a blog post (Opening sentence taken direct from a book that hasn’t been written yet entitled “Blog Posts and How Not To Begin Them”).

Anyway. Between Jo and myself, we have quite a few DVDs produced by the Later.. With Jools Holland team. These DVDs are made up of- hey- performances from the TV show, Later… With Jools Holland. Imagine that! Watching these DVDs, whether they be 10 Years, 15 Years, Louder, Giants or either of the Cool Britannia ones, it’s always struck me that there are some absolute classic performances. Pulp performing This Is Hardcore springs immediately to mind in the “classic” bracket. Snow Patrol performing Run, sadly, does not.

So, basically- even on the best Later DVD you can buy, there will always be tracks that you don’t want to hear. Of course there will, how can a 30 track DVD totally cater for everyone? However, what you can do is go to Youtube and build a compilation of all the tracks that you do want to hear. I haven’t quite got around to doing my ultimate Later playlist, but when I do, you’ll be the first to hear about it. I know, you can’t wait.

In the meantime, here are 10 Later performances from one of England’s finest, PJ Harvey, taken from across nearly 20 years of a fantastic career. Whether it be through her collaborations (with Tricky on the magnificent Broken Homes) , covers, or her own compositions, here is an artist who is never content to rest on her laurels and repeat herself… *cough*Oasis*cough*. Don’t take my word for it, check it out now.

It speaks for itself.

Tracklisting:

  1. Wang Dang Doodle- 1993
  2. Down By The Water- 1995 (my personal favourite)
  3. Taut (with John Parish)- 1996
  4. Broken Homes (with Tricky)- 1998
  5. Big Exit- 2001
  6. This Is Love- 2001
  7. Who The Fuck?- 2004
  8. The Letter- 2004
  9. Silence- 2007
  10. The Glorious Land- 2011
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Metronomy Live: Brixton Academy

It felt, a few years back, like Jo and I were at the Brixton Academy every month. But last night’s Metronomy gig was our first visit to the famous venue since a Richard Hawley gig about a year and a half ago. Standing on the slope, looking down towards the stage, I felt very happy to be back. It was almost as exciting as the prospect of another Metronomy show- almost I said. That happiness lasted as long as it took for the show to begin and three lads (and an iPhoned up lass) to come and stand in front of us and chat their way through the opening section of the show.

I know she had an iPhone because she was getting it out every five seconds to snap her gormless friends.

The Metronomy men; Joseph Mount, Oscar Cash, bassist Olugbenga Adelekan and a guitarist/keyboard player whose name escapes me now were resplendent in purple lounge type jackets and cream slacks. And they opened the show with Monstrous. Not that most of the people around me would know that as they stood, chatting to each other, taking photos of each other. It wasn’t that I couldn’t hear the band, it was that they were being drowned in a sea of London indifference. Even the Love influenced Month of Sundays couldn’t totally turn the tide back, despite the Adelekan’s exhortations to those of us who were paying attention.

Love Letters call and response stylings were a bit lost so early on in the gig, but Mount got everyone’s attention- and one of the biggest cheers of the night- as the opening doo-do-do-do-do bars of The Look filled the Academy. Lift off? Not quite. Annoyingly, the slow groove of She Wants (one of my favourite songs on The English Riviera) saw everyone return to their conversations.

At that point, Mount strolled off stage and I genuinely wondered for a moment if he was coming back. Adelekan led the rest of the band through the new instrumental, Boy Racers. I like this, a lot, but couldn’t help feeling that people were getting into the wrong songs. I know, who died and made me president of the listening committee?

However, we were on an upward swing now as a couple of cuts from Nights Out were unfurled, first Holiday and then Radio Ladio. Even the chatters around me got into Radio Ladio. But then, how could you not, “What’s your name? What’s your name? What’s your name” etc… Everything Goes My Way is still as beautiful as it was back in 2011. I found myself wondering how someone can say “I love this song!” every five minutes and then chat through the very song they’ve just said they love. I also found myself wondering how Anna Prior- who basically ends up singing the lead vocal on that song- can sing and drum at the same time and make it look so easy. Practice, dear boy, practice…

She had clearly earned a break from drumming duties after that though. She downed sticks and joined Oscar Cash at his keyboard stage left, whilst Adelekan joined the, er… other guy at the keyboard stage right. They shoop doo doo ahhhhed their way through the brilliant single I’m Aquarius. As Mount, standing at the mike, wove his tale of love gone wrong, “You said our love was written in the stars, but I never checked my charts”, it gave the whole thing a lounge act gone wrong vibe. Lest you misunderstand me, this was a good thing.

If the classical rave stylings, complete with appropriate lasers, of Reservoir didn’t convince the crowd that the band hadn’t gone totally lounge on us, then the electro punk Corinne surely would have. And then, The Upsetter saw Mount stripping things back again- the guitarist whose name I’ve forgotten sitting down to strum along to another of Mount’s tales of woe. Oscar Cash was given his moment in the sun then as he came to the front of stage to sing a song, the chorus of which appeared to be “My desire is your naked body”. Apparently, it’s called Naked Smile. He sang it well, I have to say. By now, the crowd was totally with the band and the main set closed with a euphoric rendition of The Bay.

The encore began with Mount reappearing with a cheery wave from behind one of the pink clouds that were part of the stage and beginning Some Written on his own. Gradually the band all reappeared in similar fashion, before joining in with the song. Except Prior, she blew us all a kiss. As with the Cash cameo at front of stage, this reintroduction highlighted something I’ve really enjoyed about the Metronomy gigs I’ve seen- they have a bit of wit about them. It’s not just about coming out, playing the songs and fucking off back where they came from- they want to give you something different, something to remember. Heartbreaker had everyone singing along before the show closed with The Most Immaculate Haircut. There’s something about the way Mount sings

“I get this feeling in my bones sometimes/its like my legs might fall away/a shooting pain runs down my left hand side and I/I think of you/ oh hush now”

that really gets me. It’s gotten me ever since I first heard The Most Immaculate Haircut a couple of weeks ago, there’s something so desperate, yet soothing about it. It was an appropriately beautiful note to finish this gig on. It was a gig to highlight just how far this band has come since the Royal Albert Show in 2011.

I look forward to seeing them again soon, although perhaps not at the Brixton Academy.

 

 

 

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The Rocket Man: Ronnie O’Sullivan

Ok, this one, despite the title, is definitely not going to be a music piece.

Some people don’t get snooker, I get that. Watching two men spend 15 minutes attempting to move red balls a fraction of a millimetre one way or another… well, when you put it like that, it’s easy to sympathise. However, one of the few things I inherited from my dad, aside from an- at times- almost crippling lack of self confidence, was a love of the green baize. My dad was a decent club player, never going to be a professional but had a high break of 92 on a full size table, which is pretty good. Is it weird that I can still remember that almost 15 years after I last spoke to him? The one sporting trophy we had in our house was a snooker one that my dad had won somewhere. When I was a kid, we had a six foot table that would come out on Sunday night’s so we could play a bit. As I got older, and mum and dad divorced, he would sometimes take me to the Riley’s on Hounslow High St.

By the time we fell out, or I decided that I wasn’t prepared to compete with his love for alcohol anymore, I had started going to that Riley’s with my friends Chris and Gabs. That lasted for as long as it took them to start going to a fucking shooting club! Whilst Gabs and I always had close games, I never managed to beat Chris- who had a little 4 foot table at home and, crucially, the one thing I never mastered (one of many things, I suppose), cue ball control.

Anyway, I love snooker. I love watching snooker so much that I’m convinced my need to watch every ball of the 2002 World Final (Ebdon v Dott,  one for the purists, that) was a contributory factor in a relationship breaking up the following month. As much as I love watching snooker, though, I find great sympathy with the view put forward that,

“I wouldn’t say snooker’s dead without me, but it’s better with me in it.”

ronnie

Who said that? Well, the reigning World, and newly crowned Masters Champion did. Something like that, anyway. And, as he proved last April, in winning the World Championship after a year away from the snooker treadmill, Ronnie O’Sullivan… well, he’s different gravy.

To watch the man known as “The Rocket” in action is to watch a tremendously difficult game made to look as simple as mowing your lawn. That’s when he’s playing well, of course. It hasn’t always been that way. Some of The Rocket’s antics down the years have been a cause of consternation to the paying public- particularly when he walked out of a match with Stephen Hendry; some of them a cause of aggravation to his peers. As a huge fan of Ronnie’s, and having read both of his books, I think it’s easy to sympathise with someone who had to deal with both his parents going to prison when he was a young man, a kid really. How wouldn’t that affect you for the rest of your days?

It’s well known that a big part of Ronnie’s resurgence- back to back world titles (with a year off in between)- is down to the work he has down with Dr Steve Peters. Dr Peters has helped Ronnie to control “the chimp” on Ronnie’s shoulder, who would, in the past, cause Ronnie to implode with often spectacular results.

I resisted the opportunity to make a “chimplode” pun there, be proud of me.

In his latest book, Running, Ronnie speaks about the pressure of the World Championship, how you can look at people at the quarter final stage and just know that they’ve gone; their physical appearance an outward projection of mental disintegration. It strikes me that there’s no way Ronnie would now be able to deal with those, highly intense, 17 days in Sheffield without that input from Dr Peters. Maybe I’m doing him a disservice, after all he had won it three times already when 2012 came around. The World Championship, as anyone who watches it knows, is not just about talent- Ronnie would win every year if it was- but being able to deal with pressure. Lots of it.

And he is doing it now. It’s incredible to think that, at 38, the man routinely regarded as “the most naturally gifted player to ever play the game” might actually be improving. Or “maturing” as Steve Davis put it on television last night.

Oh yes, last night. It was funny to watch the Master Final last night and listen to John Virgo trying to explain why Ronnie, the current World #24 was playing in a tournament for the top 16 players in the world. The correct answer was that Ronnie, as World Champion is automatically seeded #2 for all tournaments. The obvious answer is that he is the best player in the world and the Masters would clearly be poorer for his absence.

That’s just my take on it, but in a tournament regarded to be second only to the Sheffield marathon, Ronnie breezed through the competition and played some devastating snooker. Rob Milkins managed to take one frame off Ronnie in a 6-1 defeat, Ricky Walden couldn’t even manage that, he didn’t score a single point in 5 frames. Stephen Maguire came and went 6-2.

And then it was just Mark Selby and Ronnie…

The defending Masters Champion against the World Champion. The, no quarter, method man versus a (not so) fragile genius. Kind of like when Chelsea play Arsenal. It promised to be close. Owing to Ronnie’s comments about “The Jester” in his book, it promised a certain amount of needle. As a result of Selby’s granite style of play, Ronnie had described Selby as “the Torturer”, which is actually kind of a compliment when you think about it. Although it also does the Leicester cueman a disservice; on his “A” game, he is as fluent as anyone- with the exception of Ronnie O’Sullivan.

So, yeah, it promised to be close, for about as long as it took Ronnie to race into a 3-0 lead and then 4-0 at the mid session interval, almost totally freezing Selby out. Then 5 and against anyone else you would have thought, well it’s game over. But with Mark Selby, you couldn’t rule out the possibility of a comeback. And Selby duly got one on the board. But Ronnie playing with a focus and a determination to prove, as the watching Stephen Hendry said, that “he’s the best player in the world”, took the next frame. He did so in heartbreaking fashion for the defending champion, clearing the colours to level the frame score and then potting the respotted black. When Ronnie won the final frame of the first session to lead 7-1, the writing wasn’t so much on the wall as sprayed all over the Alexandra Palace in 20 feet high black capital letters.

On the evening resumption, Selby looked a beaten man, even more so when Ronnie took the opening frame of the session. Just two more required and the humiliation of not even making it to the mid session interval loomed for the defending champion. And then, showing that even geniuses get it wrong some time, Ronnie inexplicably rattled a regulation frame ball brown in the jaws, allowing Selby to clear to the black.The black would allow Selby to pinch the frame. He missed it off its spot, but left a tricky cut for Ronnie. He also missed, but left the ball over the pocket. As beat up as the Jester from Leicester was, he wasn’t going to pass up that opportunity.

8-2 became 8-3 with a gutsy 67 from Selby, before Ronnie grabbed the last frame before the interval to stamp out any thoughts of a miracle. Selby won the first frame after the restart, but he was just delaying the inevitable. There were to be no fireworks in the final frame, and no centuries in the final to a tournament which had been strangely lacking in that department, but no matter. The five times World Champion had now become the 5 time Masters Champion and was able to celebrate that fact with his kids.

Perhaps just as importantly, he showed Mark Selby just what the best player in the world looks like.

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The National Live at Ally Pally

Cards on table: I wasn’t gonna do a review of this one. If there is a band that has been extensively reviewed and talked about on this blog, it is The National. But then I thought that a night watching a band as special as The National, with some very special people, in a place as grand as the north London venue deserves to be recorded. And what’s the point in having this blog, if I don’t write a review of the band that inspired it in the first place?

So, here goes. After work finished last night, I headed over to one of our favourite Arsenal boozers, The Library. Situated on Upper St, it’s just far enough from the stadium that it’s not stoopid busy on a match day. On a normal Wednesday night, it turns out that it’s actually pretty fucking quiet. I got a beer and awaited the arrival of James and his girlfriend Lizzy, as well as Jo and her dad, John. They all arrived eventually, beers and Caucasians were drunk and then we headed over to Piebury Corner. Which gave James and I an opportunity to launch a chorus of “We’ve got Dennis Bergkamp!” as we tucked into pies of the same name.

Picadilly Line, Finsbury Park, the train to Ally Pally. The walk up hill, needing a piss. Water excreted, more fluids- in the form of beer, cider and rum- taken on, we go and find a spot.

8:45 a Sharon Van Etten track is filling the Great Hall, the screens are flashing blue. The lights go down. The music stops. The band appear on the screens, they are backstage. They turn and walk away from the cameras, they are walking towards us. They are onstage. Months we have been waiting for this gig. It’s here now.

Don’t Swallow The Cap is a confident opener, the sound (a big worry for some) is bang on, crystal clear. Though, at its conclusion, James remarks that Matt sounds like he’s got something stuck in his throat. I Should Live In Salt follows and then, and then… then, three years I’ve been waiting to hear this track live, Mistaken For Strangers fills the air. That should, I guess, have been the lift off point for the gig for me. But it wasn’t. I felt a bit disconnected from what was going down on stage. It’s not that I thought the band were struggling in a bigger arena, but I think The National’s music has a real intimacy to it that was getting a bit lost in such a vast venue. Maybe I would have felt different closer to the front, I don’t know.

Anyway. Bloodbuzz Ohio is rapturously received, and then Sea Of Love really does mark the jump off point for me. It is one of those songs that feels like it could have been written for, written about, you. I guess The National have a few of those songs, don’t they? A real highlight of The National’s performances when we’ve seen them has been the holy trinity of Afraid Of Everyone- the stand out track from last night, for me, Conversation 16 and Squalor Victoria. Last night, that trio was split up, with Hard To Find inserted after Afraid Of Everyone. Trouble Will Find Me’s final track was a bit of a comedown after Afraid, particularly for James. But when normal service resumed with Conversation 16 (I will always love bellowing “Cos I’mmmmmm Eeeeevil!” in Jo’s ear) and an extended drummed intro to Squalor as Matt wandered offstage, presumably for a piss, all was forgiven. We raised our “Heavenly glasses to the heavens”. Or, for those of us no longer holding glasses, we just raised our fists.

Incidentally, the intro to Squalor Victoria really reminds me of You Could Be Mine by Guns N’ Roses, is it just me? At this point, I confess confusion. I’ve just looked at Setlist FM and it tells me that This Is The Last Time and I Need My Girl were played before Squalor and Conversation 16, but I don’t remember it like that. And neither does Jo. Whatever, This Is The Last Time is a majestic, soaring piece of work.

We (I) got a bit of a treat then as Matt tore into Available with a ferocity that was, frankly, quite unnerving. I’ve loved this track ever since I first heard it but had no hope, or expectation, of ever hearing it live. From there the band smoothly segued into the coda from Cardinal Song before taking us on a bit of a tour around Boxer (Slow Show another of those songs written for, and about, you). About Today had, I’m fairly sure, a few eyes moistening around me. Which is about right, because it’s a stone cold classic. John went for a cigarette at that point, and that was the last we saw of him till after the gig. Which was a shame because he missed out on Pink Rabbits, the lyrics of which I finally understood properly for the first time last night. A real gut punch of a song.

Graceless was a real highlight last night, Matt bending at the waist to force his words out as the band, propelled by Scott Devendorf’s bass line, crescendoed around him. That was one of my favourites when I first heard the new album, it still is. Lean, a song which The National have written for the new Hunger Games movie followed and then, the final track of the main set Fake Empire had everyone singing along, the Dessner brothers somehow playing their guitars whilst scraping the sky with them.

When the band reappeared, the line “the lilywhite skies of humiliation” had me thinking, in an amused fashion of Tottenham Hotspur. The only track from Alligator, Mr November saw Matt out into the crowd and then after just over two hours of brilliant music, it was almost over. Terrible Love came and went in a flash. And then it was time for the goodbye song. When we first saw The National, in Berlin, nobody seemed quite sure about the words to Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks, or that they should actually be singing along to this song. Three years, and several shows later, it seems the audience is a lot more comfortable with it. And it really sounded, last night, like everyone was with the band. As the final line, “I’ll explain everything to geeks”, gave way to a massive ovation, I looked around. Arms aloft everywhere. It must have looked amazing to the band.

We gathered our thoughts, and John and headed off to the bar for one last drink before splitting up into small groups. Thinking back to it now, though I would say that this show wasn’t quite on a par with either the Roundhouse gig earlier this year, or Columbiahalle in 2011, it was still better than most. I was stood next to James for all of the close to 135 minutes the band were on stage and we barely spoke all night.

If you’re going tonight, and you haven’t seen them yet, then you’re in for a real treat. Enjoy it!

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Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: Hammersmith Apollo, October 26 2013

After 30 years of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, you might think that this most magnificent of groups would be getting a little frayed around the edges. Not so. Earlier this year, the band released what I believe is one of their best albums in Push The Sky Away. For me, this album is certainly the best Bad Seeds release since 2001’s No More Shall We Part. However, with Mr Cave engaged in writing various screenplays, a book as well as the Grinderman side project- it’s fair to say that the Bad Seeds have not exactly been rushed off their feet since. Nonetheless, the fragile, haunting and, at times, explosive textures of Push The Sky Away do not speak to a band on the wane.

So, it was with great excitement that Jo and I headed west towards the Hammersmith Apollo last night. We’d only seen the Bad Seeds once before, on their previous tour. And, at that time, we weren’t that familiar with the rest of the band’s output. So last night felt like our first gig as proper fans as opposed to casual observers. A couple of beers were drunk in The Trout, before we headed over to The Swan to see a friend from work, Alan, who was also going to the gig. On the way to The Swan, I heard a guy walk past us exclaim “Westway to the World!”, which I assume was a reference to The Clash documentary of the same name. And he got out his camera phone to take a photo of this most mythical of west London roads. I didn’t feel like telling him that he was photographing the Hammersmith Flyover.

We headed back to the Apollo after one drink, Jo was quite keen to get a decent spot for the show. We caught the tail end of the support act, but I was more concerned with trying to find out how Southampton v Fulham had gone and what my Super 6 score was. I know, I’m bad. Real bad.

9pm. The lights went down, the Bad Seeds strolled on from stage right and then, to a rapturous welcome, Nick Cave himself- dressed in black (again). When the band began touring the new album, I believe the first half of the show was the new album in its entirety, with the second half devoted to the Bad Seeds greatest hits. Starting with We No Who U R, the first track from “Push”, it seemed we might get the same. The percussiveness of this track was a real surprise, the richness of Nick’s voice was not. “Jubilee Street!” may be my favourite track from the new album, I love the way it just builds and builds. Here we got Nick repeatedly “transforming… vibrating”, demanding that we “Look at me now!”, he needn’t have worried about that. The energy that went into this track was more appropriate to a set closer than a track played just five minutes in.

Then, a detour. Abbatoir Blues, a track I’d actually been thinking of without any expectation of hearing it last night. “I went to bed last night and my moral code got jammed/ I woke up this morning with a frappuccino in my hand” always makes me think Jo, it’s also one of my favourite Nick Cave lyrics. Thinking of big black cloud expected over London today, Jo had wondered to me whether we were going to get Tupelo. That question was answered very quickly. Nick beginning the song on the piano before returning to the front of stage, his shadow creating a spidery shape on the walls of the Apollo as the cacophony grew around him.  I think, at this point, Barry Adamson had joined Jim Sclavunos in bashing the shit out of a drum kit.

It’s difficult to talk about set highlights when talking about a gig that was full of them, but from the new album, the melancholy Mermaids was superb. “I was a match/ she was a catch…” Warren Ellis guitar work at the climax of the song really took me out of myself. I think that’s all anyone wants from a gig- a moment of transcendence. Unless you’re paying £35 for a bit of background music, which, obviously some people do. Not that there were many of those people inside the Apollo last night. Nick paused to tell us how much “that song always cheers me up”, shushed everyone and then we were thrust into the psychodrama of From Her To Eternity. I fucking loved hearing that last night. I can’t imagine a time when I won’t love hearing it.

And then, having created the mother of all storms inside the Apollo… it was piano interlude time. The beautiful Love Letter and then Far From Me.

ncatbsHiggs Boson Blues, with its references to both Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus got a few, to my mind, inappropriate laughs. Nick dragged the song’s coda out, grabbing someone in the audience’s hand and putting it to his chest, “can you feel my heart beat?” As Nick got involved with something at the front of stage, I forget what, he said over his shoulder to Warren Ellis, “Warren, start the song.” I didn’t recognise the song at first, and then I realised it was one of my favourites from Abbatoir Blues, Hiding All Away. “There is a war coming!” Oh yes, there is, Warren’s viola/violin whatever the hell it is soared above and through the driving music, creating a kind of sonic hurricane. Then, perhaps the most famous song in Nick’s repertoire, the Mercy Seat. Not my favourite, but hardly a hardship either. Two guys just in front of me were taking it in turn to bellow the song’s lyrics at each other. I enjoyed watching that.

The murderous tale of Stagger Lee couldn’t fail to hit and then Push The Sky Away closed out the main set. A beautiful song, the lyric “Some people say it’s only rock and roll/ ah, but it gets you right down to your soul” may be the perfect, 2 line, distillation of 30 years of the Bad Seeds. The backing vocals from the rest of the band over this most pared down of tracks were a delight.

The encore began with the rumbling We Real Cool and then, apparently, a real crowd favourite Deanna. there’s something about this song that’s always irritated me, but I enjoyed it last night. Red Right Hand saw lots of- hey!- red right hands lifted towards the roof. That’s another Cave composition I don’t think I could ever get bored of, a great song. At this point, Nick told us they were going to play one more song and asked if anyone wanted to hear anything. Evidently, someone asked for Jack The Ripper because that’s what we got. A couple of real pearlers in this one.

“I got a woman, she just hollers what she wants from where she’s at”

and

“She screams out ‘Jack the Ripper!’ every time I try to give the girl a kiss”.

Brilliant. Just brilliant. And it still wasn’t over. This wonderful show closed on a new track, Give Us A Kiss. Unfortunately some drunk wanker at a back was intent on ruining it for everyone, repeatedly shouting out something that sounded like “Go on, Michael!” If that was you, then you, sir, are a fucking knobend and I hope you get run over by a bus. Or run into that bad motherfucker named Stagger Lee, he’d sort you out.

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